The Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission recommendations were released over the weekend to a predicable media reception. Using the fear of fire many politicians, journalists and others seek to make themselves popular by backing the clearing of bush — yet going by the findings of the Commission there is not a scintilla of evidence justifying it.

But there is potential value in the report, especially in the responses and submissions to it.

In the end ‘the bush’ is blamed and its sentence is to be burned and logged — with no regard or objective evaluation of the ecological and economic costs and consequences to water supplies, fishing, tourism, public health, etc. Or even the effectiveness of burning to reduce fire risk.

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The media has made the task of objective assessment impossible by promoting views of people burned out by the fires and demanding their wishes are acted on. Those with other perspectives on fire and critical of past fuel reduction burning have been all but silenced by the media — as would any politician who had ‘doubts’ about fuel reduction burning.

The Royal Commission itself was adversarial rather than inquisitorial. Witnesses who were critical of government response on the day of the fires were cross examined as if they were in a court.

In stark contrast Chris Taylor’s Report The Victorian February FiresA Report on Driving Influences and Land Tenures Affected for the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Wilderness Society is seminal. It’s devoid of opinion but gives the most comprehensive tracking of each of all the major fires, with systematic analysis of causes and timing with comprehensive maps dealing with each (it’s referenced with page numbers in this article).

With single legal representation for all fire fighting bodies and no capacity to protect those giving evidence, the Commission was nobbled — but finding guilty parties is really of little consequence compared to addressing the massive practical problems. By starting from the towns burned in the fires — rather than the sources of ignition — the entire ‘report’ reflected an age-old urban fear of the bush and this skewed its findings.

That day — February 7, 2009 — was the third of three of some of the hottest days on record in a month. But unlike the other two it was also predicted to be windy. In the heat power lines sagged and with the wind they clashed and sparked against trees and fences.

Five of 13 major fires were started by power lines, including the most deadly at Kilmore (Taylor: pages 13, 15-25). The state-owned SEC, sued over burning Mount Macedon on Ash Wednesday, had responded with a comprehensive power line maintenance schedule that was apparently all but lost in the complexities of regulation following privatisation of electricity supply, infrastructure and maintenance.

The Royal Commission’s recommendations 27 -35 address this issue but overstate the need for immediate under-grounding of power lines when basic maintenance was the issue. The fires did not start in forest or bushland, bar two as a result of bushfire-induced lightening. Most started in dry introduced grass species common across Victorian farmland, especially along cleared road reserves often used for power lines.

The Kilmore fire, that killed so many in Kinglake, was one of these.

The preceding 10 years of extended fuel reduction burns merged into opportunistic back burns, during the 2003 and 2006-07 fires in particular. It was around these fires — that killed no-one directly — the deadly ‘stay or go’ policy was developed, putting responsibility back on property owners to make their properties and homes ‘fire safe’. A deadly clash of academic theory and cruel practicalities of fire.

Over successive summers people were told the safest place when the fire came through was in their house — the advice was wrong, and it missed a crucial element. Where do you go when the house catches fire? I and good friends were burned out on Ash Wednesday.

Some stayed in their houses too on that night — there was similarly no warning — but they all got out onto the ‘lee side’ (the already burned side) when the house caught fire and survived remarkably unscathed under blankets on burned lawns, in dams, etc. No such additional advice was available in the ‘stay or go policy’ despite written records and evidence to other inquiries.

Big fires do not happen often so the public who listen for the Country Fire Authority (CFA) siren were not consulted or considered when it was decided to replace sirens with pagers for CFA members. The lack of sirens on that day added to confusion and for some proved deadly. Again this is covered in the Commission’s comments, but the sirens are now recommended as a community responsibility rather than associated with the CFA  — what most people in the bush expect.

Lack of warning from a confused command structure also proved deadly on the day. Planes with infrared capacity could be found for locating a minister lost bushwalking but not used on Black Saturday to track the fire.

The Commission’s recommendation 27 in regard to co-ordination with the Defense Force could be used to address this issue. The communication system, developed during the earlier ‘managed fires’, clearly and predictably fell apart on Black Saturday.

The Department of Sustainability and Environment and its officers and associated departments they directed were buried in a mess of bureaucracy like so much wreckage after the fires and seemed to almost hide from the Commission. Prior to that day DSE was the ‘master’ of fires and often treated the CFA like the spare guest at the wedding — crews often spending frustrating hours on standby waiting for instructions.

Telstra was not informed that it needed full staff for that day for triple zero calls — but neither did it use its initiative. The idea of mobile phone warnings for all was also a failure on succeeding hot days and ‘cried wolf’ dangerously when the day of the text warning came to nothing.

Targeting towns that were burned out for special building regulations is an academic and common-senseless approach that expands bureaucracies, punishes those burned out and leaves people in caravans, hopelessly exposed more than 18 months after the fires.

Evacuation works if people know where the fires are going and — as recommended — can be backed up with fire shelters, community and property-based. Householders should not pay for all these profiteering, supposedly fireproof trimmings to save the insurance industry one cent. No house is safe on every day and it perpetuates the myth it might be safe to stay inside.

Buying out people in supposed high-risk areas is also senseless. Who do we buy out when we have our next deadly fire across farmland like the Streatham or Lara fires of the past? The Commission’s recommendation 4 addresses this issue, but insurance liability was ignored.

The whole deal of insurance is a mess and councils are crippled by perceived liability. A friend, an elderly woman with one leg, rang the council asking for the best route to leave in the aftermath while the fires were still burning at Healesville and was told the council couldn’t tell her which way to go. What rubbish. State bodies and corporations often self-insure and insurance for local government must be covered likewise by the state.

This would also greatly reduce other costs to the community. Insurance companies that profit from houses being saved from fires should also consider covering the additional costs of materials to make those houses safer. This would greatly speed up reconstruction. ‘Beneficiary invests’ is very close to ‘user pays’.

Pyromania is a mental health issue in all societies and it is manageable given the right resources. Mental health workers watched their charges become increasingly excited as radio and TV ran story after story with experts warning that fires were coming, fires were coming. It was like a red rag to a bull and these people lit fires all over the state — some escaping from additional supervision to do so.

Most added little to the day but nuisance and fear, but other fires lit by these people killed people and caused great harm. The Royal Commission did not adequately deal with this issue and for the media — especially the ABC — this is an issue in successive fire seasons that requires self control. Regulate if necessary. Clearly, too, far better co-ordination with mental health professionals and the media is required.

Again the Royal Commission did not include millions of hectares burned in wildfires over the last decade ‘as fuel reducing’ and then went on to recommend that 5% of the state’s vegetation be burned annually. This makes no sense at all. Though I could not convince a DSE employee to provide me with an original report, they were concerned enough to give me basic round figures for wildfire in the following financial years — 1.3 million hectares in 02-03, 22,000 hectares in 03-04, 188,000 hectares in 05-06, 1.22 million hectares in 06 -07, 32,000 hectares in 07-08.

By any measure that’s enough fuel reduction, especially when it’s added to ‘ecological burns’ and fires used for ‘regeneration’ after logging  — and fuel extensive reduction burns, all of which too often ‘get away’. Way too often on a Friday. The consequences of continually burning bush need to be examined by a separate inquiry that looks at the affects of continuous smoke exposure on public health, on the impact of fire on water production for dozens of rural supplies and the disastrous impact it has on tourism.

And does self described ‘fuel reduction burning’ even work — does it always reduce fuel? When it doesn’t it increases the risk to the public. Even its direct costs are in multiple millions, making it irresponsible not to carefully evaluate it.

The Royal Commission took advice from current and ex-foresters, the Department of Sustainability, Parks Victoria, the Department of Primary Industry, Country Fire Authority staff and ex-staff, past and present graduates and lecturers from the Creswick School of Forestry at Melbourne University and various professors and think-tanks. They represent, how ever well-meaning, only one side of this story.

They, in turn, inform the federally-funded Bushfire Co-operative Research Centre (CRC), which in turn informed the Royal Commission. Given the charged atmosphere and lack of ‘protection’ offered by the Commission there were few people employed by government prepared to contradict the prevailing view or critically review the research of the bushfire CRC.

The bush is a word for hundreds of vegetation types at various ages with various degrees of flammability. It is not simply ‘dead wood per hectare’; rotten wood covered with moss is very hard to burn. Even where this is the measure fires often increase this load, leaving solid dead timber to burn hotter in later fires. Timber rots in older forests and becomes increasingly less fire prone. The old growth forest flanked by the wattles of Tarra Bulga National Park not only stopped the fire but wet bush absorbed the shower of embers — again — and remains to this day unburned (Taylor: page 48 ).

Burning the Big Desert, Wilsons Promontory, the Grampians and almost every other national park in Victoria cost a fortune but does little or nothing to improve public safety. Recommendations 56-62 need to be separately evaluated with objective research — even that has been recommended by the Commission itself.

Road reserves are not fuses. Where they contain wattles with fire retardant qualities and ember catching vegetation they can provide shelter from fires according to research published by the Forestry Commission in 1984 (Tress, Farms and Fires; J Simpfendorfer). They are also sometimes the only remaining source of seeds for remaining indigenous vegetation — and the last habitat for many insects, small mammals, reptiles and birds.

The unbelievably huge releases of C02 into the atmosphere from deliberately lit fires have also been ignored and should not be.

The partnership with the ABC, especially ABC Radio which ran a ‘special’ on the recommendations of the Royal Commission over the weekend, further narrowed and ‘popularised’ the findings and their analysis and relied on the same sources for its ‘experts’. Journalists who attended the fires, some to this day, were imprinted in their views by the opinions of bushfire-affected people they dealt with in an emotional way.

There was no opportunity for an objective look at fires and vegetation so they, like the Royal Commissioners, blamed the bush. This again flies in the face of past Forestry Commission research that recommends the now dreaded ‘gum trees’ be planted and managed to reduce wind speed and catch embers.

There is value in some of the recommendations of the Royal Commission and that value depends very much on how the government acts. Now it is up to the government — Liberal or Labor — to establish a separate scientific inquiry that systematically and objectively evaluates the impact of fuel reduction burning and its implications. This must be done before more road reserves — often the last of the original vegetation — national parks and reserves and distant wilderness is burned. Again.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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